The Real Deal New York

James Gardner — Gotham Center, from the glass masters

Moed de Armas & Shannon’s new LIC building throws a curve into Queens’ skyline
By James Gardner | May 02, 2011 01:13PM
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Usually when I return home from JFK, the taxi driver takes me into Manhattan across the Triborough Bridge (or, if you insist, the newly rechristened Robert F. Kennedy Bridge). But a few weeks ago, as I left the airport, my driver took the 59th?Street Bridge (or, if you insist, the newly rechristened Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge). I do not often come this way. And so, as we were speeding toward the entrance ramp, I found myself wondering: “What on earth is that massive, curved structure we just passed?”

With a quick Google search, I was able to learn that this building, with its crescent-shaped footprint, was the nearly completed 2 Gotham Center, which is being developed by Tishman Speyer and designed by the architectural firm Moed de Armas & Shannon.

Workers at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which will occupy the office portion of the building, only recently started moving into the 21-story, $316 million mixed-use tower, which was topped off about a year ago.

2 Gotham Center

The moment I learned who designed this glassy tower, it all made sense.

The new building is fully of a piece with what MdAS has been creating for two decades now. Especially over the past few years, the firm has been responsible for some of the better new buildings in the five boroughs and, as important, for some of the best restorations and recladdings of existing buildings. The partner in charge of this latest project — which is intended ultimately to comprise four similarly curving structures — is the Havana-born Raul de Armas.

Another notable example of one of the firm’s new buildings is 510 Madison Avenue. And some of its more eminent rehabilitation work can be found at 100 Park Avenue, the Colgate-Palmolive Building at 300 Park Avenue, and 430 Park Avenue, not to mention 1095 Avenue of the Americas.

A quick glance at these works will make clear the aesthetic and the technology that unite these builidngs and that define the architectural firm in question. MdAS, founded in 1991, is not a firm that cultivates a plurality of styles or even a great plurality of forms. But there is no firm that has exploited more single-mindedly, or to greater effect, the new technologies in glass cladding than it has.

Usually the glass skin that covers their buildings is unfurled across these serene surfaces without inflection, and without curves or interruptions, like the thinnest layer of water passing without so much as a ripple over the smoothest of stones. The secret is in the quality of the glass: Many architects and developers use an inferior grade of glass with none of the metaphysical smoothness or the luminous clarity achieved with the glass used in this firm’s projects. The firm uses double-glazed glass, and coats the surface of the inner wall of the first outer pane to provide that distinctive luster. Also, the spandrels — the spaces between the floors that separate one row of windowpanes from another — are of a slightly different hue and are subtly fritted to enhance the overall effect.

But as with the best minimalist artists — say, Agnes Martin or Donald Judd — the firm attains a resonant purity in the deployment of the simplest grid. When you come upon 1095 Avenue of the Americas, long derided in its earlier incarnation of “the Verizon Building” as one of the crassest, stalest examples of ’70s Late Modernism, or when you pass the new L’Oréal Store at 575 Fifth?Avenue, where MdAS redesigned the base, you are suddenly compelled to feel anew the beauty of the grid that is at the heart of modern architecture … and that, in so many less capable hands, was long ago reduced to banality.

For its part, 2 Gotham is the first completed structure, and to date the only structure even begun, at the 3.5 million-square-foot Gotham Center mega-development in Long Island City’s Queens Plaza.

Curved toward the east and flat toward the west, it represents what may be the most ambitious effort to date to transform Long Island City from a zone of dilapidated factories dotted by new condos into a gentrified, mixed-use neighborhood.

Certainly, City Hall hopes that the low rents in this part of town will lure businesses that cannot afford Manhattan across the East River.

To this end it has provided, as anchor tenants, some 4,000 Health Department employees. The new building rises over what until recently was the drabbest of parking lots.

As a modernist typology, the curving façade of MdAS’s new design is hardly unique. The most emphatic and beautiful incarnation to date of this type of architecture may well be Oscar Niemeyer’s famed?Edifício Copan in São Paulo (1966), which is actually somewhat S-shaped. That building was predated by New York’s own respectable, if less accomplished, 200 Central Park South, designed by?Wechsler & Schimenti in 1963.

And a very fine realization of the type can be found in another relatively new building in Long Island City, Court Square Two, about four blocks south of 2 Gotham and designed by the firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox.

The reason I bring these buildings to the reader’s attention is that taken together, they illustrate the striking differences that occur when different architects make use of the same forms.

With 662,000 square feet of office space, 2 Gotham, the newest of these buildings, is similar in form and function to the nearby Court Square Two. But if the overall aesthetic mission of that earlier building was mainly to be different, 2 Gotham’s mission consists of achieving a monolithic purity, one that’s almost daring in the context of most other municipal buildings.

In fact, 2 Gotham exhibits a formal and textural homogeneity throughout the façade with such insistence that it rises to a bold artistic statement: It rises up from the ground without a base or preamble and then, at the top, it ends as suddenly and simply as it began, without any hint of a summit to define it.

In the hands of another architectural firm, the results could be severe and boring, but that is not the case here. The fact that the building’s footprint is not entirely curved, but rather like one curved corner of a larger square, comes as a surprise and a relief. Add in the sensitivity of the workmanship with which the glass skin has been applied throughout, and the result is a feeling of sympathetic, human warmth across the entire project.

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